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Exploring the Grounds of “Nature’s Olympics”

If the IUCN World Conservation Congress is really “Nature’s Olympics,” as I’ve been hearing a lot today, it has quite the stadium.

The Jeju ICC, where more than 8,000 people are meeting this week to discuss conservation, is a surprisingly open and sunny convention center with tantalizing views of the Pacific.

Jeju’s convention center. Photograph courtesy IUCN.

Like most of my other conference experiences, I’d expected to spend my days holed up inside, eating prepackaged sandwiches and feeling bummed about missing out on the culture beyond the walls.

The ICC, as I discovered today, has both those things covered. For lunch I found a food court with real Korean food—although the menu was totally in Korean, I managed to order a vegetarian bibimbap that’s the best I’ve ever had.

Bibimbap is a common Korean dish served in a bowl with rice, sauteed veggies, and a spicy chili paste. (The convention center also has a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Baskin-Robbins, and a 7-Eleven, in case I need an American fast food fix.)

Korean bibimbap. Photo by Christine Dell’Amore

I also wandered outside—unheard of in most conferences—to the Event Stage, where I caught the tail end of a can-can dance performance, just one of many regular cultural events during the week, ranging from sword fighting to world jazz to Japanese traditional music.

Next to the stage is the Culture Market, where a variety of Jeju traditions are on display, including pumpkin taffy (didn’t taste much like pumpkin, oddly), South Korean calligraphy, and painted paper fans—some of which you can make yourself.

One booth lets you try on Jeju traditional dress and get your picture taken. Though the heavy silk was nearly unbearable in the humidity, and the little tasseled hat kept popping off my head, I got photographic evidence (below).

Wearing Jeju traditional dress. 

Also, to get to the exhibition hall from the main building, you have to walk outside—a much appreciated diversion. There were a few large bonsai trees along the way, and after I’d seen the exhibition hall I traipsed up steps made of the volcanic rock that’s so widespread on Jeju. Apparently there are black stone walls everywhere on the volcanic island, some of which previously served as defense against invaders.

A bonsai outside of the ICC. Photo by C.D.

The stone is also used to make sculptures depicting Dol Hareubang, or “Old Grandfather.” The predominant symbol of Jeju, these stout men are found everywhere on the island—including, as I was pleased to find, on the top level of the ICC, though I’m guessing this guy is a replica.

A traditional Jeju symbol, Dol Hareubang. Photo by C.D.

Though I haven’t seen Jeju yet, the World Conservation Congress at least gives me a sense of where I am in the world.

Christine Dell’Amore, environment writer-editor for National Geographic News, is reporting from the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju Island, South Korea.